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Music for Cogmind?

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For a while the whole music thing was something I was going to start dealing with in mid-2016, but last year Cogmind just kept increasing in scope as it felt like there was enough funding to justify adding more Fun Stuff while still on the route to finishing off the story. And my intent all along has been to wait until the main game is complete before tackling the issue of music, to be able to better gauge the full extent of what’s needed. With the upcoming Alpha 15 being story-complete, this can wait no longer!

Most roguelikes don’t even feature sound, much less music. Of course, “most roguelikes” are also non-commercial--nearly all the commercial roguelikes do have their own music. That said, these commercial roguelikes also have nowhere near the same soundscape that Cogmind already does, so there’s an argument to be made for not bothering with music in this situation…

I’m a huge fan of video game music, and have been since the 80′s. Yes, the 80′s, back when I’d record NES tracks on cassette tapes to play back later. VGM is almost all I listen to--every. single. day. :D To me music is a big part of the gaming experience as well, and I’ve always thought it accounts for much more of the experience than most people gave it credit for, though that public perception has certainly changed over the past 15 years. On both the development side and among players, nowadays game music is afforded a much greater importance than it once had, and is more widely appreciated. Yay!

So naturally I’d love to have music in Cogmind. That I’d one day be all grown up with my own game that could have its own professional OST? My 7-year-old mind would be blown :P. But in the end I’ll have to put aside my personal preferences and do whatever works best for Cogmind, for which there are a number of different options that don’t necessarily equate to a full-on “music music” OST.

Music vs. Sound Effects

Cogmind is rather unique in that it already includes a detailed soundscape providing lots of audio feedback for everything that’s going on, both interface-wise and surrounding actions. Different beeps and bloops for anything you do, material-based sounds for a variety of actions, unique sounds on talking to each major NPC, distance-based volume for explosive and other special machines, of course hundreds of weapon-related effects, and much more supported by an array of more sound samples than almost every indie game out there. If it happens, there’s a sound (or three :P) for it.

cogmind_sounds_data_170404

Zoomed out view of all Cogmind sound data to date, 821 of them (even more if including the additional samples layered in).

These sound effects do a pretty good job of creating the right atmosphere on their own, though there is still potential room for a separate continuous layer of music or ambient tracks to enhance that atmosphere and mesh it all together. The question is whether it’s necessary or desired, and what factors play into that decision.

Music is certainly tied closely with pacing, and in roguelikes pacing can vary greatly from player to player, or even from moment to moment in the same run. You might be making rapid decisions that could involve either combat or simply inventory management, or you could be in a pitched battle during which you suddenly choose to cautiously and intentionally make every little decision only after some thought. This makes dynamic music not quite as appropriate for turn-based games. Instead, sound effects work better as a way to match the player’s pacing (problems associated with animations and large battles aside, which I’ve tried to mostly head off with faster animations). In this way the sounds themselves are together a type of “dynamic music,” with the added benefit of each component offering its own feedback to the player.

While over the past couple years Cogmind has gotten along just fine like that, let’s examine some other possibilities.

Form

There are multiple potential approaches to music here, each with their own benefits and drawbacks.

Music Music

Music with strong melody (and a variety of instruments?) makes for good listening on its own, but would steal too much of the attention from the existing soundscape. This is also the kind that players (especially roguelike players) would tend to simply turn off anyway, and is the only category I believe should probably be out of the question for Cogmind.

Of course, like any of my claims in this post, an individual composer’s talent could very well prove me wrong under certain circumstances. Regardless of type, the best video game music eventually doesn’t even register while playing--despite being a part of the experience, as an integral part it is absorbed into the whole. Ideally players can focus on it and it sounds good, or not focus on it and it fades into the background. I’m guessing it’s harder to achieve this effect with less ambient forms of game music, so again it’s a question of skill.

Semi-ambient

One step away from music with a strong melody we have that which borders on ambient, but still uses a recognizable yet subtle melody. This more subdued type could be appropriate for Cogmind, having the advantage of using continuous music to “unify” everything in the existing soundscape without overtaking it, while also possessing its own identity.

Pure Ambient

For a while I’ve imagined that this will be Cogmind’s best option, though it’s also harder to find and judge who might be good at this, since it’s a very game-specific, atmosphere-specific approach. For someone to do this well, they would also ideally have personal experience with each respective area in Cogmind’s world, because a lot of that feeling comes from playing rather than from visuals (by contrast the latter would be the case in most other games). I guess I’d end up just trying to do my best via descriptions :P

Any music should definitely strongly reflect the area in which it’s heard, in line with Cogmind’s overarching design goal to maximize immersion, and pure ambient tracks would have the easiest time helping to achieve that goal.

As a test, for a while now Cogmind has already included two tracks that fall under this category, relatively monotonous looping drones used in

the cave areas

as well as Command.

Not the best examples, but they work okay. In all these months I haven’t received any feedback as to whether they actually add anything / enhance the experience.

When I think pure ambient I also think there could be other faint/distant sound effects playing in there, so better than the samples above, although it’s challenging to have a looping track in which such elements don’t stand out every time they come up! That might need to be dynamic--random effects layered on top of a continuous looping background.

Local Ambient

Very similar to the previous pure ambient option, this one may be able to achieve the same effect. It takes the “sound effects create the ambience” approach to an extreme, relying on numerous localized ambient sounds sourced from machines producing looping effects. However, in its pure form there is no unifying continuous track throughout a map.

cogmind_ambient_sound_propagation_samples

Visualizing the sounds emitted by select machines. I’ve written about the system behind this before.

The advantage here is that it’s something I can do myself, meaning it’s both cheaper and gives me more control over the feeling I want. (I don’t have the skill to do any of the other types above.) Finishing it would probably take at least a week, so technically it’s something I could try before going with any of the other options. As seen in the screenshots, only a handful of machines in Cogmind currently produce sound--like the ambient samples they were just a test.

Cogmind Dynamic Ambient Sounds

They’re dynamic! Ambient sound changing as a door is opened or wall destroyed.

In the end, machine-based ambience and any kind of music are going to be mutually exclusive, unless that “music” is extremely subdued, as with the cave/Command samples.

Outside roguelikes, there are some examples of games that have taken this route, and for similar reasons, too. For example, The Witness doesn’t include music. Nor does Duskers. Like Cogmind, both place a heavy emphasis on immersion, and have been praised for it (random example, one of many I’ve seen). Interestingly, since it came out I’ve heard more than one account of direct comparisons between Duskers and Cogmind.

Style

In a general sense there are two ways to go about music style, either something bold and experimental, or “safe”/”just there in the background.” Hard to choose between the two! Especially in a game like Cogmind which already has its own audio identity to an extent.

Movies and games are rather different mediums, but the same general principles apply across them--check out this video (the point is summarized from the linked 12:04). Lots of games go with safe music, which is otherwise not very interesting in itself. But more and more games have proven it doesn’t have to be that way. Of course, taking a pure ambient route misses out on the value of having music which is memorable and associated with the game, as well as a draw for anyone listening to trailers or gameplay videos for the first time. (That said, I’ve also noticed people dropping into streams and immediately being awed by Cogmind’s existing combination of animated terminal aesthetics and its accompanying sound effects, so I guess that much already comes across…)

As for specific style, I don’t think there’s any argument that Cogmind music (assuming there is any) should be electronic/tech-ish in nature. No pianos or acoustic guitars here. One common reaction might be “chiptune!,” but to be honest as much as I like that style myself I don’t think it fits the theme of immersion and realism which we already see with the mostly realistic sound effects. Chiptune has more of a gamey, less atmospheric feel to it. Cogmind probably needs something more gritty and sci-fi than that.

We can make further inferences about what Cogmind players expect and enjoy by checking out what they’re already listening to (see addendum at the end of this post).

Money

Music is expensive. Well, okay, it can be very expensive, or even not too bad, depending on the composer, style, and volume of work required. Cost is the biggest reason I’d even hesitate to at least try out a soundtrack.

Music is obviously not necessary for Cogmind, but how much would it add to the experience? And is that cost worth it? The answer will vary greatly by individual player and whatever style and format are chosen. Taking it as a trade-off, a professional composer to do a full OST for Cogmind would come at the cost of at least several months or more of time I could afford to spend adding extra content. That’s because I’m willing to work very cheaply on my own game, but the pros are not :P

I’m not looking to buy the full rights to the music, meaning a composer could certainly sell a Cogmind OST, and Cogmind is not exactly an unknown game (I can see it being fairly popular once it’s out there), so maybe that counts for something? A lower rate perhaps? :) For a composer that only makes sense at the more musical end of the OST spectrum, but that’s also the type of music which is more expensive in the first place. (Ambient work is generally cheaper per minute.)

Assets

How much music do we really need, anyway? I can’t show a full world map here because spoilers, but I can say that at an absolute minimum there would need to be 6 different tracks. But that’s woefully inadequate in a world with nearly 40 maps divided into about 30 types.

The problem is that as soon as one or two of the more specific map subtypes get their own music, it would seem odd that others don’t have their own as well. A more realistic minimum would be 10 tracks, which still merges a number of areas with unique meaning, gameplay, and/or atmosphere. As I’ve divided it up, a more ideal number hovers around 16.

The total cost will also depend on the precise length of each track, which itself could vary widely depending on style, composer, and what turns out to work the best. I’d say a minimum is probably 2-3 minutes per track, putting the minimum combined length at 12~18 min (low end, unlikely), 20~30 min (realistic middle ground), or 32~48 min (better estimate). Preferably they’d be longer, but then some of those in quicker areas would naturally also be shorter to mostly compensate.

Then of course there’s the consideration that new maps added in the future will likely require their own music, and that any additional asset requirements placed on new content slow the addition of said content while also reducing the total amount which can be added further down the line. This is one of the unavoidable annoyances of taking roguelikes commercial and adding higher production values overall :P

Composers

There are countless qualified pros out there. I spent a good bit of time researching potential candidates a couple years back, and over the past two years of alpha others have contacted me directly expressing interest in doing the OST. I’ve never specifically contacted any of the composers I researched, but all of those on the short list below have gotten in contact with me at one point or another. I’ll introduce each below, but know that I have not all that recently spoken with them about the possibility of doing an OST, so they may not even be available these days, or simply too expensive.

(Of course, as my luck would have it, all these composers live in expensive countries, which makes it harder for me to come up with the rates necessary xD. I’ve seen some pretty good composers in cheaper countries who work for lower rates, but no one yet that I think would be a good fit.)

Alex Yoder

Alex did Cogmind’s Alpha Trailer music, which has received a lot of praise (no surprise there--it’s wonderful!).

A trailer music’s format is different from what one hears in a game, but Alex has done work on games before, including the well-known Crawl. His style involves some pretty interesting sounds. It’d be neat to see what he could come up with for Cogmind. You can hear more of his sci-fi-ish stuff here, here, and here.

Ben Prunty

As composer for the famous FTL, Ben probably needs little introduction. It’s hard to say what he’d come up with for Cogmind since he’s got a wide variety of styles, but he did mention being interested in doing the OST if given freedom to experiment.

On top of the skill factor, Ben also brings up the potential value of having a recognizable name attached to the OST, and by extension the game. That fame can be a drawing point itself, something that isn’t as easy to quantify and factor into cost vs. benefit.

Neon Insect

A composer-plus-Cogmind-player, Neon Insect sent me a track inspired by the game. You can listen to it here. It doubles as a good example of what I was calling “semi-ambient” above.

This particular track isn’t amazing, but then it was just a quick fun thing he did one day a couple months back, not a final version. I played through a whole run with this going in the background and it did a nice job.

I have more composers on my list--these are just the first few that stood out so far. If you yourself think you’ve got a style that could work, or would like to recommend some other composer, I’m happy to listen to suggestions and submissions :D

Addendum: What are Cogminds listening to?

People have so much of their own music these days, or access to it via the net, that it’s been easy for players to insert whatever they feel is appropriate while playing. It still seems better to provide something official if possible, which can then be muted if desired. But if we can know that a large number of players will just turn off the music, then it’s kind of a waste, eh? :P (That money can be put towards feature dev!) At the moment it doesn’t really feel like anything is truly missing without music, as it would with other games, though the fact that many players are usually playing to their own music implies that there’s space for something there.

Looking back at what Cogmind players have reported listening to over the years…

The Deus Ex: Human Revolution OST is popular, which together with the OC Remix adaptation is what I’ve played to the most. The System Shock 2 OST is also popular. Other OST recommendations from players: Frozen Synapse, Hackmud, A New Dawn (MW2 covers).

What do you listen to while playing? What direction would you like to see Cogmind take in terms of music, given your experiences and the considerations I’ve run through in this post? Discuss here or over on the forums. (Also more discussion has been happening on r/Cogmind)

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17 Comments

  1. graspee leemoor
    Posted April 5, 2017 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I would get Ben Prunty, tee bee aitch.

    • Kyzrati
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 10:36 am | Permalink

      I’m sure many would :). To add another name to the list, the most frequent write-in over the first day of feedback has been Makeup and Vanity Set.

  2. mark mathias
    Posted April 6, 2017 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    This is a tough decision for sure. Honestly of the three, I think the Neon Instinct sounds the most “cogmindish”, but he did make it after being inspired by the game.

    Honestly though, while a fan of soundtracks, they would have to be pretty ambient and toned down to fit in with the game. When I play cogmind, I like to imagine a pretty sparse world, after all, machines wouldn’t have much use for music. Empty corridors and echos off stark interiors.

    I kind of reach the conclusion that it would depend on the skill of the composer. Turn based is a strange beast for music, the tempo of play determines how fast it feels, where other games walking speed give a good “beat” to make music to.

    Hell, I think someone like Perturbator could do the game justice. Listen to Night Driving Avenger and Dangerous Days. https://youtu.be/1Vsf3zYppP4?t=15m20s Obviously they would have to tone the music down to fit the mood/theme, but they make damn good sounding stuff, futuristic and dark.

    • Kyzrati
      Posted April 6, 2017 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the feedback.

      > but he did make it after being inspired by the game

      Yeah I think others would be able to do something good in this regard, although that’s also why it would be really great if whoever does it has also played at least a fair bit of Cogmind and really “gets it.” (Technically all three composers I listed have played some amount before, though.)

      > Listen to Night Driving Avenger and Dangerous Days.

      I love that kind of dark retro-future synthwave style. In fact, it’s the kind of OST I would almost certainly use for a new X@COM (this plan was already in my notes :D). Not quite what I’d want for Cogmind, though I’ve added them to my list for possible future collaboration.

  3. Sylverone
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 7:10 pm | Permalink

    Personally I’ve been looking forward to more ambient machine sounds from the beginning. The idea of all the different machines whirring, clicking, and humming at various volumes plays out well in my head, and seems like it would stand out as unique. I like the idea of giving that a week of dev-time and seeing whether it feels complete or not. In any case, it could go in options as something that could play alongside -- or instead of -- any tracks that are commissioned for the game. But that’s just me.

    I do wonder if just a week is an optimistic estimate of how long machine effects would take to implement fully.

    Having never beaten the game, I wonder if a (semi/)melodic soundtrack would make sense for a credits-roll, or maybe even more than one (I seem to recall there being multiple endings?). And maybe during the end-game story, if that’s a thing. Credits could be padded with parts art and maybe little animations to accommodate an entire track.

    Just thoughts. :)

    • Kyzrati
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 9:31 pm | Permalink

      > I like the idea of giving that a week of dev-time and seeing whether it feels complete or not.

      Yeah I like that idea, too, and would kinda like to try it out first. Since I’ve kinda slow-tracked 1.0 and decided to keep it EA for a bit longer even once on Steam, there should be time enough to devote to this before committing to a composer.

      > I do wonder if just a week is an optimistic estimate of how long machine effects would take to implement fully.

      The whole system is in place and ready for sounds to be dropped in. Altogether it will require about 120 complete sounds. Of course, it will take far less just to see how it feels by applying it first to only the types of machines found in one or two areas. I already have a good number of sounds ready for use as well, so it’ll depend on how many I’m missing, or that aren’t suitable, and how long it would take to fill any holes. So yeah it could very well take longer if I have to go searching for too much stuff from scratch. I haven’t taken a complete inventory so it’s hard to tell for sure.

      Re: Multiple endings and music, there are definitely a number of endings, but they are all already fully sound-enabled and even work better without any music. Assuming there is music later, those will remain as they are for the intended atmosphere.

      And this isn’t some AAA production with a billion credits to list anyway :P

      Thanks for the feedback!

  4. Neon Insect
    Posted April 7, 2017 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for inlcuding my piece.
    While I’m not happy with the result, because it isn’t really fleshed out and I just took a few hours of time to make it, I feel honored to be included in your little list here.

    Whatever you will do, I’m looking forward to the game and what it might become. Really enjoy playing it for what it is already.

    • Kyzrati
      Posted April 7, 2017 at 9:43 pm | Permalink

      Hey Neon Insect! I must say you do get points for being a current player who was already inspired by your experience to create a piece that fits rather well. It makes things easier when a composer has played and enjoyed something, doubly so when they were drawn to it in the first place, i.e. without being asked to play :D

      • Neon Insect
        Posted April 8, 2017 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

        Thank you very much :) It means a lot to me that you can relate it to the game.
        Always liked those style of games, which have that dark cyberpunk feel to it, because they are very inspiring to me.

        Probably want to mention, that I am used to write for games, since I am working for a studio as a composer.

  5. Bacon
    Posted April 19, 2017 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

    I’ll drop my two cents. If a roguelike has music I’ll generally turn it off after a few hours. The idea of a soundscape composed of noises from the machinery around you makes me drool with excitement and it seems like it would fit the game like a glove.

    • Kyzrati
      Posted April 19, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      Hey Bacon, thanks for the comment. That’s my general impression so far and probably where I’ll be starting. I at least want to test out what a full map’s machine-based soundscape might be like, and that was the original plan, after all, so it makes sense to explore it first!

  6. Posted April 29, 2017 at 7:53 am | Permalink

    Since I´m playing various roguelikes (Cataclysm:Dark days ahead, UnReal World) for over many years now, I got accustomed to good ambience sounds. For my (German) Let´s Play on YouTube I´m using a set of different dark-ambience themes while recording. Some viewers bought Cogmind and asked me later, where they can activate the “music” :) I´ve got to second the comment from Bacon regarding “a soundscape composed of noises from the machinery around you”. That´s what I´d like to have in Cogmind. Currently I´m waiting for A15 to restart my Playlist. But you can have a look at my last episode from October´16. There you can hear the ambience-sounds together with the gameplay. I think it fits well… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nKezljAJT0M&list=PLaT7g8SpP6b6E_mWs1Cc6DM7GMQafJElG&index=30

    Thx & Cheers
    Dad

    • Kyzrati
      Posted April 29, 2017 at 10:00 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the link, I do like that dark ambience. Good reference :). The main thing with pure machine-sourced sounds is that in some areas with larger distances between the machines, there will be spaces of relative silence (aside from the existing one-off sfx from actions and the UI). I’m not yet sure if that space will need to be filled as well, but it’s worth testing without it first, anyway.

  7. Draxis
    Posted May 9, 2017 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    I really like the idea of the localized ambient sounds, but global ambient music can really add to the tone of areas if it’s not usually used. So unless the machine ambiance turns out to be really distinctive for different areas, I’d say keep in the Command and Caves music, and maybe a few more pieces like them, but leave most of the map without it.

    • Kyzrati
      Posted May 10, 2017 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      Yeah map distinctiveness is a good point. Even the machine ambiance won’t cover every corner or open space, so there will be quiet areas under that approach. The first test will be to see what lots of machines can sound like, though note that it’s true different maps actually have different sets of machines! After that we can decide whether it’s important to fill in the blanks with some kind of unifying audio.

  8. Posted October 23, 2017 at 5:39 am | Permalink

    I can’t believe Ben Prunty offered to do an OST for Cogmind! The hype is real! Haha. I’m very surprised you didn’t jump on his offer considering Cogmind falls into the sci-fi category of his style pretty nicely. Although I agree with your above points being that music isn’t cheap, and roguelikes don’t necessarily have to have soundtracks… regardless one or two songs would be a good way to test the waters without having to commit to a full OST.

    • Kyzrati
      Posted October 23, 2017 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      Heh, well Ben’s of course not cheap, so not something I could jump into until I actually have money anyway xD. The whole music thing was put off for months after I hit my head, too, since my hearing has been a lot more sensitive and it’s a bad idea to make any audio decisions for now!

      Anyway, we’ll see!

      If I was going to hire someone, though, it would definitely be someone familiar with roguelikes, and more specifically someone who likes Cogmind as a game.

      Ben does fit these criteria :)

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